Rough Cut

We stand at the edge of the playground. A throng of racing children and chattering parents presses us to chain link. He asks about the house and I give him the latest update. Good news, for once. When the celebratory chaos has melted away along with the popsicles, Bug and I will head back to my office to print and sign 44 pages of loan documents. The seller’s bank has approved an extension and my sketchy but efficient new loan officer is pushing for the end of the month. Tee listens and asks polite questions. Neither of us ever bought a home before and I am now tackling this with the help of a huge circle of friends and family which does not include him.

He says that he’s heard about the housing market around the place he is considering. Four-bedroom homes there are going for about what I am paying for this cramped condo. He has dreams of a fixer-upper and his father swooping into town in a van packed with a table saw and hydraulic nail gun to help turn the place into a masterpiece.

Continue reading “Rough Cut”

S Avenue Crew

I want to say I’ve never done anything like this before. Trying to buy this home is the toughest undertaking of my life. Or, so it seems when I am in the throes of it. After hustling like a horse trader, I managed to get the loan officer to talk to the realtor to talk to the seller’s agent to start all working with me again. After being sure we were just beyond losing, we turned it all around and were just days away from closing.
 
Then wham. Today, my bank slammed the book shut for the last time. Not (just) because they’re scoundrels who serve The Man but also because central stairs in the condo complex are under repair. Without a property manager forthcoming enough to provide documentation of the extent of the damage, my bank couldn’t approve the loan. It’s sensible. It’s cautious.
 
It sucks.
 
So here I am six (SIX!) months into this short sale, thinking to myself, “This is the hardest *&$% thing I’ve ever done. Harder than parenting. Harder than the divorce! I’m not up to the task!” Etc. and all that jazz.
 
All of that internal chatter? Total B.S.
 
At 22 years old, about a century ago, I lived in a housing cooperative in Vermont. Just about the time I moved in, the 5-year deadline on the financial support from the local land trust came screaming in at us. We had two dozen residents in two buildings about to be hit with an interest rate hike of several percentage points. We were all living on a shoestring. The cost of home ownership, food, utilities, maintenance, insurance, and every other little thing was shared among a band of bohemians and revolutionaries. Without the gap support from the land trust, that house would have been back on the market and in the hands of yet another city landlord.
 
Not a chance. We were a posse and this was our block. We went to work. Buckling ourselves in, we powered through days-long meetings with federations and experts, poring over legal documents and funding application guidelines. We dug and dug deeper still to find pockets of money or ideas. We tried allying ourselves with the Canadian co-op associations, the local credit union, members of the Progressive party, Congressman Bernie Sanders. Anything and everything. Giant three-ring binders littered our floors and we flipped through them in twos, threes, until the wee hours.
 
We went to the state capitol building. We lobbied, we bent and twisted. We re-wrote our bylaws and changed our mission.
 
And we swaggered home with our suitcase of money.
 
It required significant adaptation. Our co-op residency requirements had to change to designate a certain percentage of the units as low-income housing. We alienated some of our more off-the-grid members (who am I kidding? That was everyone) by kicking ourselves up to a professionally run property with an application process involving tax documentation and pay stubs. Everyone grumbled. We pushed through agonizing consensus-based meetings to ensure that the whole of the community could live with the concessions.
 
We saved our home.
 
Somehow in all of that, we also scored a major grant to make massive structural repairs. New roof, new porch, new beginning.
 
Maybe the only difference now is that I’m putting all of that grit into a place for my very own self. It is weirdly disorienting. All this effort, not for any identifiable community good but just for my son and dog and me to have a place to shake off? If it’s only for us, can I command the determination? The resources? The support? Gerry Connolly ain’t taking a meeting with yours truly. This is my game now. My block.
 
And where’s my posse now?
 
It turns out it is right here. My realtor and I have become thick as thieves in the last six months. As soon as I got the bad word, she was back in the driver’s seat with her foot to the floor and zeroing in on other banks with more flexible standards for collateral soundness. My erstwhile lender has answered half a dozen calls from me today even though she’s not making anything off of me anymore. She just keeps sending on over the documentation and details I will need for working with someone else.
 
And this is just the beginning.
 
There’s the firecracker of a guy I’m seeing who’s not only helped me think through every step of this latest kerfuffle but is also just waiting for me to say “go” so he can take his circular saw and hard hat over to the site and get this damned thing fixed.
 
There’s the assortment of friends strewn from Mexico to Toronto sending me links to housing sites, mortgage brokers, credit unions. They also pile oh encouragement and perspective.
 
There’s my boss who has given me the freedom to take off on a moment’s notice, as well as all the assembled co-workers who have picked up the slack whenever I’ve disappeared to douse another real estate fire.
 
There are my folks. Willing to work it, work it, work it in whatever way it has to be worked. Do I need cash? A co-signer? More time? An ear? Granted, they have a dog in this fight. If fish and houseguests start to smell after three days, what happens when you approach three years? In any event, their support is beyond generous.
 
There are all the new friends in my community who tell me their stories, listen to mine, ferry me around to shop for knock-off furniture, offer to come help paint and move, offer me names and ideas, and just provide the much-needed release from the intensity of it all.
 
And there’s my son. “Mommy, you can have the $44 in my bank account to help you buy your house.”
 
This posse is tight and tough. Because of it, I can’t wallow in my dank alley of defeat for more than one hiccup before someone shoves me back out onto street. That suitcase of money is sitting right there in plain sight. “Get on out there, girl! Do what you gotta do. Tell me where you need me, and let’s get to work.”
 
This fight ain’t over. My little dream has just taken a hit and is coughing in the dust, but we’re all closing in. Minutes ago, a text arrived from the realtor. We’ve got a backup bank willing to overlook a few questionable details and move with utmost haste to close the deal. Now, on to the seller’s gal who is also in this crew, trying to squeeze out a couple of extra weeks. All of us, defending the block. My block.
 
Consensus and compromise and hustle as we close in on high noon.
 

Welcome to Munchkinland

“If we walk far enough,” says Dorothy, “we shall sometime come to someplace.”

-L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

I had not entertained the possibility of defeat. In the six months since making an offer on the one condo we could make our own, I had only allowed Yes and its ilk to join me on this convoluted voyage. At every twist in the yellow road, I simply closed my eyes for the half-second required to tap heels and picture home. Square shoulders, gather senses, and press on.
 
Until the letter arrived.
 
One slim envelope, and not a surprise, turned up in the mail yesterday. “Your application for credit has been denied.” No big deal. I pulled the plug on the quasi-approved loan after it became clear the short sale was going to eat into my finances for another month or three. Two banks on the seller’s end are duking it out over a piddly $3700 discrepancy in the assessed price of the home. Meanwhile, my lender is awaiting word from a county engineer indicating that recent repairs at the complex pass muster. The county engineer, whose name and number I scrounged up in my determination to gain some semblance of control over the situation, takes my call but to no avail. Her hands are tied as she awaits word from the property manager indicating the dispute over rehab costs is resolved. The property manager refuses to say spit because the complex is involved in legal proceedings.
 
To tip the whole endeavor into emerald absurdity, my bank started charging me $450 every two weeks to extend a loan with no fixed end date. I made the harrowing decision to let it all slide for a month and then reapply. The dream condo is still under contract with me, though, so I trust this is merely a waiting game.
 
Perhaps my trust has been a fool’s errand.
 
When I open the letter, an entirely different story tumbles out. My lender has denied my loan not because I failed to extend it but because of a laundry list of credit problems. In the nine months I have been working with this bank – my bank, the one I have used for insurance and checking accounts and credit cards for 15 years – not one of these issues has surfaced. Too many credit inquiries? Too much money in rotating accounts? Insufficient collateral? How is any of this possible, and why has no one mentioned it before?
 
A breeze from the open window lifts the pages from the bed where I have dropped them. I can’t bear to look at those terse, typed lines. The simple goal of buying a home blurs and retreats. Without this, there is, quite literally, nothing.
 
Nothing but here.
 
It’s not as if another place is out there waiting, one that’s just a little less expensive or a tiny bit further from my son. Not a single local condo even at the outer reaches of my price range has been listed in the past three months. The only affordable properties are an hour’s drive away. As the weeks of economic recovery tick by, the asking prices at the low end are ballooning beyond reach.
 
Let’s not get into a discussion of rental costs. I can actually afford (just barely) a mortgage and condo fees. Stick the extra few hundred per month on top that local landlords demand and I cannot even squeeze Bug and me into a one-bedroom, let alone a place where we can grow.
 
Mother’s day just passed. I had started to believe those friends that generously reached out to tell me I am a good mom. I can’t help biting back the response: So the f**k what? What does it matter? Sure, I love my kid and give him a decent-enough life. But what to make of this this very basic metric of providing? What to do with this failing grade? I cannot afford a home for my child.
 
As the breeze scatters pages around my room, every mistake I have ever made pushes up like a twister and tilts the world. That knotted string of poor decisions spills out behind me. At any point, I could have chosen differently, chosen more wisely. Chosen to fight harder for the marriage. Chosen to nourish my own career instead of Tee’s. Chosen to pursue an MBA or a teaching degree instead of my indistinct master’s in nothing remotely marketable. I could have decided to stick with the GIS which came so naturally instead of foregoing it for dance and revolution. I could have studied harder, maintained a professional network, written about something substantial, stopped hiding. Could have stopped pouring energy into worthless shit like gardens, bread, mountains, books, and friends. Cut short the conversations. Culled the flourishing heart.
 
Gotten to work.
 
Then, perhaps, I could have the capacity to reach this one simple goal. I might be able to provide for my son.
 
As it is, I have to live at the front end of this frayed string. I try to braid it into some sort of rope to haul Bug and me up and out of this spinning house and onto a patch of solid ground. It splits in my hands. It shears to nothing.
 
Paper and sisal. Me, suddenly trapped in a tiny bedroom not even my own. Stunned into paralysis. Now how to proceed? The choices I make today, are they similarly foolish? I can’t begin to understand how my credit is rated poor. Aside from a car I paid off in 2006, I have never held one penny of debt. I pay my cards in full each month. I have no college loans, no collections agencies after me. Somehow, I manage to maintain small but steadily growing balances in retirement, 529, and brokerage accounts. Ample funds to cover expenses both planned and otherwise are a click away every month. In fact, my checking now has more cash in it than I’ve ever seen in my life, squirreled away there to cover 20% down on a vanishing dream.
 
My credit is poor, quite simply, because I am.
 
A good-enough job for the Commonwealth of Virginia is barely sufficient for a single woman to survive. It falls short of thriving, and barely enters the ballpark of getting by when a kid is added to the equation.
 
Yet, I had I assumed my choices are the right ones for right now. The daily mile to and from the metro saves me $5. Taking breakfast and lunch saves me $10 or more. My hair looks like a factory-floor mop squeezed a few too many times through the rollers because I refuse to put money where the payoff isn’t evident. I hold onto a low-paying job with good benefits and flexible hours so that I can pick up my child at the end of the day and still have time for a conversation with him over dinner. We spend our weekends wandering the woods or roaming the neighborhood, eschewing outings that require a fee. All the small sacrifices, the little denials of indulgence, the hand-kneading of the pizza crust from sourdough starter and hand-making of Christmas gifts, because I believed that simplicity could lead Bug and me to the place we belong.
 
But what if I’ve been wrong?
 
What if it is cowardice or stupidity keeping me quiet in my room at night writing poetry? What if contra dancing and nighttime walks are just time – precious, would-be productive hours – tossed in the garbage? What if I have only been avoiding the hard work of launching a real career? A girl’s got to pay the bills. This isn’t a game anymore. I don’t get to make decisions based on what feels good or what compels that tenuous aspect called “spirit” (something, as it so happens, I don’t even believe exists) to roam those lush meadows of the imagination.
 
And now I wonder what it would take. Which missing part drives me to Oz to tap the source? I fear I lack in every regard. My loose, anemic heart has not loved self or son enough to get past my idle ways. My brain has languished in a vacuous, quasi-childhood of pleasure instead of erecting bridges with industry and precision. And my courage? Never has it been emptier than when I have tried to draw upon it as I lurch towards the lip of necessary change.
 
Without doggedly pursuing these attributes, why would I expect to find my way anywhere more substantial than Munchkinland? How could I have been so silly as to think I could tap my heels and carry us home?
 

In Action

Chaotic action is preferable to orderly inaction.
– Will Rogers

After two hours on the phone with a loan officer, I’m in. Approval! At long last, the gods have given the nod which has always eluded me. It was not just sleight of hand and self-deception. Those blackened pennies dropped into the jar have turned into something tangible after all. The cash is tight but it is sufficient. For the purposes of this one stunning undertaking, we have enough.
 
How princely of them, yes? To allow me to pay them more money in interest alone than I’ve ever seen in my life? Still, a loan of this sort is no small favor.
 
Thirty days. That’s it. With fingers crossed and a calendar packed tighter than an orange line train at rush hour, we’ve scheduled the closing for April 3. In the meantime, everything and more clamor for attention. The inspection is scheduled for Thursday when the region is on track to be trapped under 10 inches of snow. The appraisal follows on its heels and then the condo association hauls out HOA documents. That tome will land in my hands right when I’m boarding a plane for Florida for a three day student affairs conference. I’ll have exactly 72 hours to comb through meeting minutes, addenda, and financial statements before I’m locked in for good.
 
Did I mention that I am also a single mom with a job, a dog, and a rising tide of laundry in the hallway? And that I scared out of my mind? This is a staggering chunk of change to buy a home that looks nothing like I ever imagined settling me into a life that I never planned.
 
Time expands to fill the need, I hear. And the press of those needs keeps the terror at bay. The roadside rest area where Bug and I stopped to catch our breath was only just that. We cleared our heads. We refilled the tank. We established a manageable routine. It’s been comfortable. Orderly. Safe.
 
Idling in neutral is certainly exactly those things. Unsustainable too. Not to mention dull as dirt.
 
So now, action. And all the dangers of putting this beast into gear and edging our way back onto the open road.
 
Off we go!
 

Happy 100 Days: 77

Word from the bank: approved for a loan.
 
Before rushing off to look at the half-dozen tiny townhouses in the county I can afford, I have to remember to pause and notice this turn of events.
 
Approved!
 
For a home loan!
 
Bug and I are not stuck after all. At some point in the next three months or three years, the story will change again. It always does. We may stay put, we may move on. The happy truth? We have choices. We have a way forward.
 
I can provide a home for my son.
 
A home!